Business / Education

How the founder of College Abacus is trying to maintain her startup roots inside a giant company

Two years in, Abigail Seldin sold her company to the Educational Credit Management Corporation. Here's what she's doing now.

Abigail Seldin. (Courtesy photo)

Talk about quick turnaround. In the span of three years, Abigail Seldin dropped her Rhodes Scholarship to launch a startup, then sold that and joined a nonprofit.
Oh, and she got married, too.
The idea for College Abacus, an online college cost-comparison website she launched with husband Whitney Haring-Smith in 2012, was actually inspired by complaints from her mother-in-law.
These were no ordinary dinner-table gripes, however: Tori Haring-Smith is the president of Washington & Jefferson College, a small liberal-arts school in the Pittsburgh area. She worried about the data labyrinth families would had to face when inputing their information into schools’ net price calculators.
The entrepreneurial couple, who met at Oxford, realized that was a problem they could tackle.
Thus College Abacus, a website hailed by the press as the “Kayak of college financial aid,” was born.
The startup passed the seed-round stage with flying colors: it raised $400,000 from friends and family and even pocketed $100,000 from the Gates Foundation’s College Knowledge Challenge.
But barely two years after it had entered the scene, College Abacus exited.
In June 2014, the startup was acquired for an undisclosed amount by the Educational Credit Management Corporation (ECMC), a nonprofit with the dubious mission of helping the government handle legal issues related to student loans — including aggressively squaring off against borrowers applying for bankruptcy.
Seldin hoped that the buyout would help her website thrive and remain free of cost for users.
“It’s a 6,500-person company now. Versus me and 10 contractors,” she said. She added that ECMC “not only embraced the technology but also the mission.”
The following month, Seldin became VP of innovation at ECMC, leading the group’s small “Innovation Lab” near Mount Vernon Square.

Inside the ECMC innovation lab.

Inside the ECMC innovation lab. (Courtesy photo)

With the added responsibilities, of course, came new headaches. Seldin shrugged that in College Abacus’s startup phase, “I had less paperwork.” Now, she has processes to follow.
Seldin has many projects on her plate now, including the $2.5 million Campaign for Innovation at Zenith Education Group. Zenith is the ECMC arm that took over several campuses of Corinthian College, the infamous for-profit college network that went bankrupt after multiple fraud accusations.
But she still spends a quarter to half of her time on College Abacus, she said. Last month, the website released a new tool for low-income students that incorporates Pell Grant information.
Her new role has also allowed Seldin to become a talent curator of sorts.
She met one UX designer, Samantha Zucker, while “scoping talent” at a Consumer Finance Protection Bureau data jam. Seldin is partial to fostering female dev talent in her shop: out of ECMC Lab’s 10 full-time employees, seven are women, and the space hosts Women Who Code DC hack nights twice a month.
“Usually when you sell your company, you kind of roll the dice,” said Seldin. But for her, she concluded, “It’s kind of a Cinderella story.”

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